Obsessive compulsive disorder: what is it?

Most of us, at some time, have experienced the horrible feeling that we have left home and forgotten to do something important such as locking the door, turning off the gas or putting out the dog.

Usually we manage to put these worries out of our minds, although sometimes the thought keeps nagging away so strongly that we end up having to check that all is well.

However, up to 3 per cent of people suffer from a mental condition, known as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), in which such worries can totally dominate their lives.

Symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder

People with OCD are troubled by recurrent thoughts or repetitive actions or both. They may have persisting, unwanted, unpleasant and intrusive thoughts that they can't control and that won't go away. These thoughts are called obsessions. They often take the form of feeling dirty, having hurt someone, being to blame for something or having neglected to do something important. These thoughts make the person feel very anxious and sometimes guilty. The thoughts often seem out of character, though the person recognises they are their own thoughts. They are often afraid they will act on these thoughts.

These feelings are often accompanied by compulsions — repetitive acts performed over and over again to try to get rid of the anxiety. These acts may take the form of going to wash or shower every few minutes, constantly going round the house checking that the doors and windows are closed, the lights turned off and so on.

The person with OCD knows that this behaviour is illogical and unnecessary, but is unable to control it. Some severely affected people are unable to leave their house for even a short shopping trip as they feel the need to keep going back to check things.

Many people, realising that their behaviour might seem crazy to others, keep it secret, living in their own private hell.

Treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder

Modern research has shown some of the causes of this disabling problem to be due to structural and chemical abnormalities in the brain. These changes can usually be successfully treated with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and/or medication.

If your life is interrupted by thoughts you don't like and actions you don't want to do, discuss OCD with your doctor. Your situation can probably be made much better for you.

Last Reviewed: 24 October 2012
Your Doctor. Dr Michael Jones, Medical Editor.

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1. Obsessive compulsive disorder (revised October 2008). In: eTG complete. Melbourne: Therapeutic Guidelines Limited; 2012 Nov. http://online.tg.org.au/complete/ (accessed Nov 2012).
2. SANE Australia. Obsessive compulsive disorder (updated 2010). http://www.sane.org/information/factsheets-podcasts/180-obsessive-compulsive-disorder (accessed Nov 2012).
Dr Michael Jones

Dr Michael Jones

Medical Editor, Your Doctor.